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The Surprising Twist in John Neumeier's New Opera for the Joffrey

Neumeier's costume rendering for Orphée et Eurydice. Photo courtesy Lyrica Opera of Chicago.

As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.

How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?

It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.

You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?

When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.

Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.


It seems that a lot of your work is characterized by stories and subjects that have existed for a long time being told in a modern way.

Absolutely. It's my main premise. Whether it's a story or a symphonic work, ballet is an art of the present tense. When the curtain goes up, we're interested in and moved by the people we see—not by their literary or historical sources. When watching Romeo and Juliet, we're not interested in the question of whether the lovers really lived in Verona or not—we're moved by the conviction of those dancers who are performing for us "now." So I've always tried to find the essential timeless emotions in each situation and find a human movement language to express them. I've often put historical themes into modern dress—hoping the audience may recognize themselves in the honest emotions inspiring my choreography. I believe this was Gluck's intention when he composed Orphée et Eurydice.

Will you take the same treatment with this work?

It will be set in a modern time. It will, in fact, take place in a ballet studio, because dance is at the very core of it. In the myth Orpheus was a musician, but I interpret "music" in a broader sense. So in my version, Orphée is a choreographer, and his wife, Eurydice, whom he loses, is his ballerina.

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Historical Figures

George Balanchine

Asadata Dafora

Hanya Holm

José Limón

Pearl Primus

Current Artistic Directors

Victor Alexander

Angel Corella

Garth Fagan

Lourdes Lopez

Mikko Nissinen

Helgi Tómasson

Eduardo Vilaro

Stanton Welch

Ashley Wheater


Current Choreographers

Danielle Agami

Solo Badolo

Rohan Bhargava, PC Ezra Noh

Rohan Bhargava

Ananya Chatterjea

Nora Chipaumire

Yoshiko Chuma

Ori Flomin

Simone Forti

Zvi Gotheiner

Patricia Hoffbauer

Miro Magloire

Benjamin Millepied

Oguri

Cynthia Oliver

Eiko Otake

Koma Otake

Yuri Possokhov

Alexei Ratmansky

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro

Vicky Shick

Willy Souly

Sri Susilowati

Olivier Tarpaga

Sergio Trujillo


Nora Chipaumire

Dancers

Soledad Barrio

Joan Boada

Fabrice Calmels

Peiju Chien-Pott

Herman Cornejo

Joaquin De Luz

Lorena Feijóo and Lorna Feijóo

Marcelo Gomes

Karina Gonzalez

Victoria Jaiani

Yuriko Kajiya

Kazu Kumagai

Maria Kochetkova

Carla Körbes

Misa Kuranaga

Young Jean Lee

Pascal Molat

Maki Onuki

Hee Seo

Daniil Simkin

Yuan Yuan Tan

Living Legends

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Natalia Makarova

Margalit Oved

Ian Douglas; courtesy Sarah Haarmann. Performing with Pam Tanowitz Dance at The Joyce Theater

Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.

Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Age: 27
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College

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